A recent study from the UK notes the decline in newspaper readership among all age brackets, but especially younger readers (people younger than 35 years old). Like many studies striving to sound an alarm, the language is a bit charged, mostly full of despair, culminating in an observation that, given these changes, there is doubt about “how the public interest can be upheld,” as Lord Fowler, the chairman of the communications committee, puts it.
I seem to remember a time not too long ago when people would refer to newspapers as “fish wrap” and things used to line the bottoms of bird cages. In fact, newspapers have always been disposable as physical artifacts, and chastised as, at best, the first rough draft of history. “Yellow journalism” is derived from a yellow paper used in a lurid newspaper published early last century. The traits of this artifact now being put on a pedestal have rarely risen above the dubious.
In the larger sweep of media evolution, it strikes me as a bit odd that newspapers have become enshrined and cherished such that their existence is being tied anachronistically to something as idealized and amorphous as “the public interest.” I thought the public interest had to do with things equally amorphous, like freedom, fairness, safety, health, citizenship, community, and the rule of law.
I also thought journalism mattered more than newspapers. Personally, my biggest concern comes from a paucity of incisive journalism, but blogging has potentially started to ameliorate this (more on this in a later post). A recent article by the editor of Accuracy in Media states simply this when referring to the mass media: “Media Out of Touch with People.” Newspapers are a part of this media landscape, and often an upstream source of media to radio and television (it always strikes me as funny to see some morning shows reading newspapers to their viewers). Newspapers seem increasingly out of touch with younger readers – it has been said that newspapers are written for the prototypical “little old ladies.”
For STM publishers, I think it’s even less interesting to watch the struggles of newspapers, and they have even less relevance to the “public good” of scientists. In fact, their disappearance may remove some confusion in our culture. As Carl Sagan once noted when deriding the mass media’s comfort with pseudoscience and ignorance of real science, you can easily find a horoscope dealing with astrology in a daily newspaper, but just try finding a daily, weekly, or even monthly column dealing with the real science of astronomy. Mass media very often confounds science.
Historically, distribution has been one of the toughest challenges in communication. From tapestries to town criers to signal fires to the short-lived Pony Express to wires to spectrum to digital, distribution has created massive availability in the past century. And, as Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out in a very insightful New Yorker article, IQs have been increasing with each successive generation, perhaps because our society is becoming fundamentally more scientifically based. Does this have to do with increasing availability of good information from many sources? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Will I miss newspapers? Personally, no I won’t. They were, as are so many things, including the Internet, a stepping stone. They helped create a mass media culture of a certain type and with certain features, but now we are moving on. And improved availability of relevant and specialized information to offset the lockstep of mass media might prove beneficial to the public good.
Will you miss newspapers? Do you think their role will diminish so severely?